While an immobile thoracic spine doesn’t necessarily cause pain directly in the mid-back, it may lead to pain in the shoulders, neck and lower back. “It’s common for people who are knotted up at the thoracic spine to make up for the lack of mobility there with excessive movement in the lumbar spine,” says Cressey. The result is lower-back pain, which affects 80 percent of Americans at one time or another.
The shoulders and neck also compensate for poor thoracic spine mobility, he adds. The shoulder blades gradually move away from the spine, making it more difficult to raise the arms overhead. This increases the likelihood of shoulder injuries and other problems.
“You may get neck pain and tension headaches due to compensations that take place in the cervical spine and the neck,” says Cressey.
To improve your thoracic flexibility, simply add a few extension and rotation exercises to your preworkout warm-up routine. (You’ll also benefit by adding lumbar stability exercises to your strength workouts.) Devote just a little time to mobilizing your mid-back, and you’ll feel the difference everywhere else.
Improve Your Mid-Back Mobility
Your thoracic spine moves in four ways: It flexes both forward and side to side, extends (bends backward), and rotates (twists left and right). Virtually everyone has plenty of thoracic spine flexion. It’s the capacity to extend and rotate that is restricted in most of us.
To improve your thoracic spine mobility, regularly perform exercises involving extension and rotation of the thoracic spine. Eric Cressey, CSCS, owner of Cressey Performance Training Center in Hudson, Mass., recommends you include these exercises in your warm-up routine.
Supine Thoracic Spine Mobilization With Tennis Balls
Duct tape two tennis balls together and place them on the floor. Lie face-up on the floor so the balls are underneath your mid-back, with one ball on either side of your spine. Your knees should be sharply bent, feet flat on the floor. Bend your elbows 90 degrees and press your forearms together in front of your face in a “prayer” position to spread your shoulder blades away from your spine and give the tennis balls better access to the muscles on either side of your thoracic spine.
Allow the weight of your torso to sink into the tennis balls so that your mid-back arches around them. Keeping your lower back in contact with the floor, contract your abs and curl your torso upward slightly in a crunch. Scoot your butt forward on the floor and lie back again so that your spine extends over the tennis balls at a point just above where it did so previously. Continue to curl up, scoot forward and lie back until the ball has traveled from the point of your spine that’s about even with your belly button all the way up to just above the level of your shoulder blades.
Next: Two more exercises to correct back pain